The Dirty Word Alcoholics and Addicts Hate
Few terms scare away as many active addicts and alcoholics as the s-word: spiritual. Get me out of here! This is why many recovery programs avoid any belief system beyond atheism or agnosticism. The notion of a spiritual anything—much less spiritual solutions to addiction—is to be avoided.
Some folks are agnostic, others atheist, others raised in religious circumstances which they now find deplorable for various (and often legitimate) reasons. Some simply believe that the power of choice in drinking and using is one of individual willpower. The mere mention of a spiritual solution sends them running from the room, seeking answers in science, medicine, psychology, tarot cards, or personal intellect.
Some of these are worthy places to look, and most people benefit from some of what they have to offer. It’s also true that they may “work” for some (if by “working” one means not using or drinking). Yet simple abstinence often leads to the kind of dull, anxious, or otherwise unfulfilling life that makee getting high attractive in the first place. We believe there ought to be more to recovery: happiness, wholeness, fun, and fellowship, with a working set of tools—dare we call them spiritual?—to cope with the curveballs life throws at all of us.
Stopping is a beginning
If you think about it, it is not even reasonable to expect that just quitting drugs and drink should be enough to become well and happy. Toxic consumption and the outrageous behaviors that go along with them have taken great physical, mental, and psychological toll on ourselves and others. After physical healing begins to take, then what?
Most recovered persons will tell you that when the tools of self-medication had been put away, their unmedicated thoughts, emotions, and attitudes became too raw and intense to leave room for peace of mind and contentment. Not to mention the completely natural feelings of remorse for damage made and wreckage left behind. In this light, it’s a wonder why more don’t relapse—even a defective tool for coping with life seems better than nothing.
But recovery is not nothing. It is what happens when a person becomes open to ideas and concepts he has rejected out of pride, prejudice, and fear. It is behaving in harmony with a sense right and wrong, being present for others, and doing the right thing when no one is looking (and recognizing when we don’t and knowing how to make it right). These are, for lack of a less uncomfortable word, spiritual concepts. Kindness is a spiritual concept, as is forgiveness, two of the necessary parts of design for living that works.
Mind, body—and spirit
Addiction to drugs and alcohol are illnesses not just of the brain and body, but the spirit. (If that term makes you squirm, then replace “spirit” with “sense of well-being”, and keep reading.) There must be some reason why willpower fails even the most strong-minded addict who tries to quit, why a genius suffering from pancreatitis pulls into a liquor store for another bottle when he knows it will double him over with pain in a matter of hours. Not only is the mind cloudy and the body ill: a more profound thing is at work. His sense of being a part of something—anything! — outside himself has become cloudy and remote. His spirit has become weak, while self-esteem and dignity have fled. How often we have heard a person in recovery recount things he never imagined himself doing!
Many think the drugs and booze cause these things, plain and simple. Once they are removed from the equation, the alcoholic or addict will become a “better” person again. This is overly simplistic. The progressive nature of alcoholism and addiction turns a person inside out over time, even when he knows his behaviors are hurting others and himself. After a period of detox or dryness, as the body heals and the fog lifts, he is left with a spirit that is naked, raw, full of guilt and anger.
The fact that mind, body, and this other sense—of right and wrong, of caring, of doing the right thing for ourselves and others—are all connected is obvious. That sick feeling in the pit of your stomach you had as a child, the first time you cheated a person or took something that wasn’t yours? For lack of a better name, why not call that “spirit”? The guilt of a hangover morning? On the positive side, the elation of winning a video game or receiving well-earned praise for a job done well are also “spiritual” feelings which affect our brains and bodies, too. Think even of the word itself, “feeling”, and how we often use it: we say, “I don’t feel good about that,” which is more than an expression of emotion, but of thought, and a physical sense that something isn’t in harmony with what we know to be right.
This is what we mean when we speak of spiritual solutions, and why we know that getting your mind clear and your body healthy are not quite enough to provide a better way of life after the drinking and drugging stop. We’re not talking about religion at all, or even morality. We’re talking about living comfortably in your own skin.
It’s impossible to minimize the physical aspect of recovery. The bodies of alcoholics and addicts are usually sick, and there may be complex psychiatric and psychological aspects which professional medical treatment—often neglected or ignored during years of abuse—should address.
An immediate and obvious need may be detox, particularly in severe cases. “Dope sickness,” DT’s, and other physical withdrawal symptoms may need medical attention during the earliest stages. These usually end relatively quickly (at least in retrospect), after which food, adequate sleep, and a normal schedule of activities start to bring the body back online. Some require meds and treatments, carefully and professionally administered, for existing conditions.
As the body begins to heal, an alcoholic or addict often begins to believe that he is out of the woods. In some ways, he is—or at least, he is beginning to run out of the woods instead running in deeper. A sick body and unbalanced brain defend poorly against ingrained habits, especially during hard times. An exciting journey lies ahead, one full of promise, but the work will be difficult. Without help and support beyond the first few weeks of wellness, this returning vitality can be easily lost to relapse or what has been called “dry drunkenness”—or abstinence without joy. There is an old saying that if you sober up a drunken horse thief, you still have a horse thief. The unhappy parts of ourselves covered up with drugs and alcohol won’t simply disappear when the drinking and drugging stop.
Beware of Detox Advertising
There is plenty of advertising for medical solutions for detox, particularly for opioid addiction. Detox may be necessary, but it is not recovery. It is the beginning. There are also treatment centers which advertise recovery as a sort of spa retreat with holistic physical therapies to “end addiction once and for all.” We believe many of these practices are a part of a healthy life in recovery, but without addressing the other two points of the triangle—the mental and spiritual—addicts and alcoholics set themselves for relapse or an uncomfortable life of abstinence.
Psychiatric and psychological conditions
Another mistaken notion is that psychiatric treatments involving various medications will “cure” addiction and alcoholism. An example of this reasoning goes like this: “if only Tony could get a handle on his PTSD, he wouldn’t drink or use.” While it’s true Tony needs medical treatment for PTSD or depression, it does not necessarily follow that he will become sober. Once alcoholism or other addictions take hold, they become entangled with existing disorders, each feeding the other, while staying notoriously independent. In other words, just a sneeze stops for a few days doesn’t mean the allergy has disappeared. It can be triggered—will be triggered—again.
Depression and anxiety are very common among alcoholics and addicts, contributing to a sense of “otherness” and separation from others. Drugs and booze, in the beginning, erase the loneliness. Yet they are still underneath. It is logical to think that treating the source, so to speak, will eliminate the need for destructive self-medication. Rarely is this true. Once addiction or alcoholism take hold, they have lives of their own. Help and therapy for depression, anxiety, and other conditions are foundational to recovery. But the peculiar nature of addictions is that they persist without the help of others.
Do I Really Need a Recovery Program?
What About Other Solutions?
A person looking for reasons why a recovery program will not “work” does not have to look very far. Many already fill his mind. A quick Google search will also turn up pages and pages of “articles” for other ways to achieve lasting sobriety. Still others make distinctions between addiction and abuse with subtle (and less-than-subtle) sales pitches for ways to “live well!” The question of whether one is a “full-blown addict” is as old as herbs and wine.
Many who drink too much are not alcoholic, and some recreational drug users simply walk away from their habits. Others employ other methods and stop. We have no opinion about any of them. We do, however, know there is an approach to recovery that takes into account mind, body, and spirit. It returns many people to whole, happy lives. Most rarely think about using again. They have a ready “toolkit” and support systems for dealing with the regular (and irregular) problems of life.
Agnostics and Atheists: Hello.
Many who are sober today were once wary, if not downright hostile to a spiritual element to recovery. We understand them well. Yet plenty of atheists and agnostics use what we call “spiritual solutions.” They do not claim conversions or born-again moments often associated with religion. And there are plenty of people with long-term sobriety who remain agnostic or atheist while still practicing spiritual principles. They now use the “G” word, or “higher power” as shorthand for a resource they’ve never had before.
Discovering How to Recover
Discovery Place incorporates the practical application of spiritual principles to help men discover how to recover. We are not concerned about hostility to spiritual principles, since many of our staff and alumni were once that way. They have come to better lives without a lightning bolt or heavenly choir. They have simply listened and tried suggestions which led to a healthier mind, body, and spirit.
If someone in your life is ruining themselves or others are being hurt, talk with one who has been there. And if you have read this far because you suspect you have a problem, you are taking a positive step. We want to repeat that no one need be put off by hearing the word “spiritual.” If you find that word distasteful, hokey, religious, or downright cult-y, rest assured. We know a way to live well without religion. It just takes a tiny dose of openness to look at the world from a new angle. This is what started many of us on the road to active addiction in the first place, the desire to see and feel things differently.
Being sober and happy is the most radical thing of all.